Time to blow up blogs

Blogs have already become prisoners of their format. Time to light some dynamite.

The problem isn’t the tools, it’s the templates. Blogging tools are merely content management systems without the million-dollar consultants and bills; that’s what I’m telling newspaper folks who complain that it’s hard to put content online. Templates let you format or unformat your stuff however you like and also include stuff of any medium. I’d love to see more clever examples of templates.

Probably the best or at least cleverest use of blogging templates I’ve seen in the San Francisco State student paper, the Xpress, which uses categories or separate Movable Type blog feeds (I’m not sure which) to maintain separate sections on its front page. It also includes photo players and other multimedia.

Do you have other examples of interesting, different, creative, clever blog templates that use the form to break the form?

Michael Parekh wishes athat blogs had tabs/pages/sections/parallel lives:

But the basic format of a blog has remained unchanged.

For instance, why can’t we have a blog template with the ability to have multiple tabbed pages? Then Om could have a page 1,2 and 3.

I mean if newspapers and magazines can have multiple pages, why can’t blogs?

And then, how about offering different ways to present content within those pages than the standard headline, sub-headline, post approach? Why can’t we have headline-less short bits of text if we wanted or a streaming ticker tape for content we want to high-light? What if we wanted to feature specific posts that readers particularly liked on a separate page, thus giving those pieces an extended “Shelf-life”?

One of the reasons services like MySpace have taken off is that they gave users a ton of flexibility in the ways that each user could customize the presentation of their content.

Anybody want to design Michael his template? As I see it, different categories could feed different pages and different design behaviors, no?

See also Magnoto, which I blogged about a few days ago; it turns media elements into chunks that can be moved anywhere on a page.

This is all fine for me to say but I wouldn’t be able to design or adjust a template to save my soul. That’s why I have a son.

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  • http://www.desertstandard.com Roger Williams

    I use bloglines to read everything and I only leave it to dig into the story to read the sources. The format of the site whose feed I am reading does not matter to me. In fact I am usually appalled at how horribly people still design their sites. I think scriptingnews and boing boing have some of the best design going, but as stated above none of it matters cause its all stripped down by the aggregator.

  • http://jackpinesavage.blogspot.com/ jps

    I like .

  • Jim S

    I like the tabbed interface idea. I’ve been playing with the idea of a blog in the back of my mind…my horribly chaotic mind that finds too much interesting to follow a real single theme. So I’d love having a tab for politics/economics, one for science, one for science fiction, etc. Actually thinking about the idea I’d limit it to those categories plus maybe a miscellaneous tab. Certainly not more than 5 or 6 tabs. OTOH, as the other person said you could use it to have one tab per contributor for group blogs, especially if you could use a system like phpBB where the user can choose the interface. That way the reader could choose a simple interface, a tabbed interface or whatever other system the bloggers decided to offer that made sense for their site.

  • http://nollind.whachell.com/ Nollind Whachell

    Glad I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this. It is quite funny when you think about it. The content itself is just a back-end database of information. How you represent that information on the front-end can make all the difference in the world, as it can give you a different point of view on your content that can help you realize things you hadn’t noticed before.

    When people blabber about “Web 2.0″ as being technology focused, I just laugh because it really isn’t (although it will still help out of course). It is more about a change of thinking. Design of the front-end (i.e. templates) is really where I think the largest improvements will come in the next few years. The company that can design the usability of their blogging solution the best will be the most sought after, especially when it comes to allowing people to manipulate their content in flexible new ways.

  • http://swissroll.info/ Francois Brutsch

    One of the most versatile tool is, for once, of French origin, free and open access: Dotclear. They allow to do quickly a perfect blog (complete with trackbacks, comments and syndication down to each post) but also much more, not looking like a blog: see this collection of litterary games or this cyclotourism group. And this blog offers 9 different template for the user to choose from (she does the most wonderful tutorial for Dotclear).

  • http://thefatguy.com/ Scott Chaffin

    Anybody want to design Michael his template?

    Sure. How much is he willing to pay? As an investment banker, he should be able to pony up a fair chunk of change.

    See, here’s the deal. Most bloggers don’t care about all that hoo-ha. Because it’s fluffy eye-candy. That’s what makes blogging so engaging. It’s cheap and easy (kinda like Mr. Parekh’s TypePad). Ginning up all those formats and styles are a) difficult, and b) don’t have a pay-off. So only the coders are going to do it, and they’ll do it just for the fun of it. And then you’ll go get it and install it as you wish, or the WordPress guys will add it as a feature when they want to, or so on and so forth.

    Plus, RSS makes it moot. Are you (and Micheal) asking us to kill the feeds? Because all that stuff only makes sense if you’re loading my site every day (or hour or week.)

  • http://www.learnandteachonline.com Amy Bellinger

    No, Scott, templates are not just fluffy eye candy. They’re the organizing structure on the front end. When I saw a pointer to this piece I got all excited and had to tell about how I use Expression Engine’s uberflexible templates: http://learnandteachonline.com/node/329

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  • http://www.sports-central.org Marc James

    I run a good-sized content site that doesn’t look like a traditional blog, but uses MoveableType 3.2 on the backend. Like that [X]Press site, I have multiple MT blogs for each section of the site. These blogging platforms can really be powerful and use in many ways.

  • http://www.prblogger.com Stephen

    I’ve heard PRBlogger.com is a well designed blog. :-)

  • http://www.myobligatory.com/ APF

    I guess I’m not grasping the utility behind using tabs—or at least, I don’t understand why a “tabbed” interface or organizational structure would be in any way different than the already-common practice of organizing posts by category. Certainly it’s easy to—in say, WordPress—alter a weblog’s homepage to present not the entire log but rather the latest [x] posts in a certain category, in separate structural/visual groupings, and to provide specific subscription feeds for those categories as well as the blog as a whole. Shifting a category list from a “sidebar” navigational element to a “tabbed” navigational element is similarly trivial and can be done solely at the whim of the designer/developer (may blogs already use a tabbed interface to separate “pages”—like, “About the Author,” etc—from the weblog proper). As has been mentioned previously, the ability to do this is no technical miracle, but rather the impetus of whomever is paying to get the job done; as a designer/developer, I take opportunities to do jobs like this “all the time,” and if a client wishes to pay me to create public-domain weblog templates along these lines, so much the better…

  • http://thefatguy.com/ Scott Chaffin

    No, Scott, templates are not just fluffy eye candy. They’re the organizing structure on the front end.

    Where’s the front end? On the screen. If I only read your RSS and never click over to your website, does it matter? Not one bit, to me.

    On the other hand, if I want scrolling bars, flashing lights, rotating pictures, tabbed categories, interstitial ads, banners left & right, I can go to any of a thousand media sites and see all the gee-gaws.

    As always, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If it’s all that flashy stuff, more power to ye. I can’t imagine that all that design junk would do anything to help me the consumer, and it absolutely trashes what I’ve come to consider “a blog” – freed-up personalized content, and decidedly not a destination. YMMV here, as I am old.

  • http://immref.com/ IR

    I’m in the process of writing modules for a CMS in order to create a specialized CMS for someone. Not all blogging systems are the same, and there are literally hundreds of CMSes available. And, there are things besides “blog posts”. For instance, event listings, book reviews, etc. (I’d mention a system for that but they deleted a critical comment I left about their system). Just changing the templates might not be enough, you might also want to add support for different types of content.

    The linked site uses WordPress. It has a bit of a blog to the left, and to the right there are links to static pages containing the information which is the intended most important features of the site. The ‘claim’/’summary’ at the top of each of those pages are WP custom fields. The citations are added using a custom form I wrote.

  • http://www.learnandteachonline.com Amy Bellinger

    An advanced template can dictate the content you see on the page and receive in your feed.

  • http://thefatguy.com/ Scott Chaffin

    Yes, I know that. It’s only code, after all. Are you going to publish something that you don’t want people to read, though? Or something that you want only the full-page loaders to read? If so, why? Ad views and clicks? It sure better be awesome and unique and compelling.

    Anyway, I think we’re talking past each other. I want steak, don’t care about sizzle. With RSS, there is no need for me to mess with the sizz if I don’t want it. If you want to add it, by all means, go ahead…it’s your site. But there’s enough of a market out there that doesn’t care about that kind of sizzle that Bloglines and others are going concerns. Which tells me that design elements and “blowing up blogs” is a step backwards, not forwards.

  • http://www.leatherwoodonline.com Allan Moult

    We’ve been using a hybrid blog system since Day One at Leatherwood Online and judging by the visitor numbers they’re enjoying the experience.

    Here’s a sample section: Portfolios leading off our front page.

    Once set up it is very easy to use.

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  • rick gregory

    Jeff,

    One word – textpattern (http://textpattern.com/). A very nice system, this has the concept of sections baked right in. You can build sites that look NOTHING like a blog from it, yet give writers good tools. I’ve done the same with pMachine, but haven’t dove into its successor, Expression Engine, which looks far more powerful.

    Frankly, the blog world has been boring on the software front for 2 years or so. Everyone seemed to anoint Moveable Type and WordPress the blog software to have – a silly thing to do so early in the game.

  • http://www.semiconductormarketing.com RK

    Jeff,

    A while back I used to run a site with Movable Type, with four columns (like ALDaily), each column for each Category, with full comments/trackbacks. It’s now defunct, but you can still see it from archive.org here .

    RK

  • http://www.web20milliondollarhomepage.com Srinivasan

    I think you got the concern totally wrong. it must have been about metadata, the fact that if I blog saying “i need a ruby on rails job” and if you blog saying “i need a ruby on rails programmer” there is NO way to tie the two pieces of information – and thats the whole point. If templates can provide that, wonderful.

    What we have done, instead, is what mankind has done always – settle for workarounds rather than finding the solution – things like tags etc.

    Remember – 1 + 1 becomes 10 only if the base is “2”

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  • Mark Seifert

    Blogging tools are merely content management systems without the million-dollar consultants and bills;

    I agree with this. I think some users have turned to blogs simply because it is cheap and easy content management. A place to put things they and others will want to find later, with the chronological-posting aspect perhaps being a secondary concern.

    The way I would blow up blogs is to continue to refine tools that place emphasis on content organizational tools beyond chronological. No doubt OPML and tags will play a part in reshaping what we now call blogs.

  • Bob Weston

    The problem isn’t just the templates, it is the tools too. I think too much credit is given to the Mullenwegs and Trotts of the world, given how poor and uncreative their blog composition tools are.

    A lot of people have responded to this topic with things like “Anything can be done, you just have to do a little coding.” This obviously defeats the purpose. There have been a ton of innovative blog templates created over the years, but nobody uses them except the nerds who coded them for their own site. The reason for this is that the blog editors created by the likes of WordPress, MT, and Blogger are horribly inflexible. They don’t understand a thing about the presentation of your site. I believe it is possible to design a blogging editor that is just as simple, while still adaptable to the layout of the templates used to drive your site.

    I’m happy to see this thread going on – it’s time to give a clue to the people driving the development of the top blogging tools. Time to stop worrying about microformats and rss validation and do some serious thinking on usability.

  • http://www.hackaday.com/ Eliot Phillips

    I happened to stumble across two interesting themes today by Thought Mechanics. The first is the example blog for Squible (notice the “asides” box). The second is a theme they are still developing, Goodspeed (notice the “sidenotes”). I think I’ll probably take on the later for my personal blog when they release it.

  • http://thefatguy.com/ Scott Chaffin

    it’s time to give a clue to the people driving the development of the top blogging tools.

    And I’ll say it again — what’s their payback for the investment? They give the software away for free. Are you ready and willing to pay for it? Nerds do neato themes because they love coding. I do it a little because I like dabbling and flexing old muscles.

    I’ll also disagree about the inflexibility of MT and WP. My jaw drops when I hear these tools described as “poor” or “inflexible.” Yes, it takes some work if you want a flash joint, but if it’s too much for you, go use MySpace, the geegaw spot du jour where you’ll never see byte #1 of code. The reason that’s so flexible, if you want to call it that, is they own it all (servers, storage, network & code) from top to bottom. It makes a humongous difference.

  • http://www.cre8d-design.com/blog/ Rachel C

    Good food for thought. All those features you mentioned are possible with the current blogging tools. You just need to find/write plugins or use the vast number of functions available to format your content in the way you’d like.

    As an example that the data (post+entries+categories+authors) can be presented however you dream possible, here’s a “forum view” of my blog.

    A lot of people are using WordPress and MT in innovative ways. In fact, sometimes you wouldn’t even know that blog software is being used under the hood.

    Bob, I understand your point that if you’re not a coder, it may not be easy to achieve all these goals (although plugins are making many things really simple). To include all these plugins in a default install would make the software more and more bloated (and most people don’t need these extra features). Have a look at the plugin sites and you’ll be surprised at how much flexibility there is these days.

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  • http://www.myobligatory.com/ APF

    A lot of people have responded to this topic with things like “Anything can be done, you just have to do a little coding.” This obviously defeats the purpose.

    There are two possibilities in that case—either establish a competitive product which offers more services out of the box (this will in turn increase the necessity of other blog packages to either become more robust, more usable/flexible, cheaper in terms of pay services, etc), or create the templates and extend the tools yourself, offering the results to the public domain. There are plugin architectures and repositories for exactly this purpose; if you yourself are not a coder, and there is nothing available that fulfills your needs, then there is always the possibility of paying an experienced and capable developer to program these tools and/or templates for you. There’s no shame in going to a professional and actually paying for stuff you need, especially if you see blogging as more than a simple hobby.

  • http://justkidding.com TQ White II

    I’m with you. I have a friend that keeps trying to make a blog work but, because of the single column structure, he gets screwed up when he wants to talk about something totally different. He needs to have the ability to represent the variety of his interests to make it work. This bothers me too.

    So much so, in fact, that I wrote my own content management system for my site, justkidding.com. It allows me to have many blog-like streams of info that I think of as channels. I wrote it so that each of them has a template available so that I can fit my commentary into an appearance appropriate for that kind of info (short comment following a link for bookmarks, a long-form essay format, etc). I also made it so that it works with bookmarklets for easy linking. My front page has six channels on it but I have another five or six that I use for my own purposes.

    It makes me mighty happy. There are many nice things about being a programmer but I have to tell you, this is one of the best parts.

  • http://www.lifeofrobert.com Robert

    I for one am looking forward to seeing what people come up with in the template world. I also think that some folks won’t see it due to the RSS aggregators, including myself. I just counted 96 feeds in mine. I’ve probably only seen four or five of those actual web sites. While a blog is mostly about the writing, seeing creative presentation (or any presentation other than the plain text of an aggregator) is a nice plus from time to time.

    In my experience with MT, the tool is getting incrementally better in this regard with each release. I think it’s already a great tool for creating some truly useful web sites, blogs or otherwise. It may take some skill with coding to pull off, but why shouldn’t it?

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  • http://www.comagz.com/webmagazine/ Nir Ben-Dor

    The templates are not the important part of a blog. It’s the content that matters. If you ask me I’d prefer that all blogs will look the same so we can focus on what’s inside.

    Even further than that, I think that a blogger should shy from spending his/her time on playing with blog templates. A better alternative is to write in sites like Linkadelic Magazine where the blog is already built and the readers are already there. So it’s the content that differs the good stuff from the bad stuff.

  • http://www.technosailor.com Aaron Brazell

    Scott, I can’t get over you, man. You’ve gone and insulted every person in here who takes their blog seriously. Great, you want RSS, I’ll give you RSS. Have fun. But hopefully you’re not the only one reading my blog (I use ‘you’ loosely here) and there’s actually people who may come to the site – in which case design is extremely important.

    Double that importance if a blogger gets ad revenue from his site (yes, I know you demeaned that too – your loss) and ad placement is important. Triple that if the blogger tries to tie his older content together (as I do).

    I’m actually looking for a designer to do a new template for me from a professional sense because, though my template does just fine in terms of aesthetics, it needs to have a new layout to tie my stuff together better.

    I’m gladd you like RSS and that’s all you want. Not everyone is like you. And since you’re coming from the consumer perspective I can understand your shortness of sight. FRom the producer perspective, I want something for more than just Scott to enjoy.

  • http://www.myobligatory.com/ APF

    Focusing on the textual “meat” of a single blog post ala RSS and feedreaders is all good and well, but there is far more to a blog than just separating out the content of a post. Some of the most important parts of the blogging experience are completely separate from the RSS feed—indeed, we’re all likely experiencing that fact here, in typing and responding to each other’s comments. Also trackbacks, tags, archives not preserved in your feedreader, etc., not to mention outgoing links provided in response to other people’s blogs, articles, websites, etc. This makes the web-side far more important than the RSS-side, IMO.

  • http://www.myobligatory.com/ APF

    [EDIT: talking about links above, I mean that a link you address to another person’s writing will likely not link to their RSS feed, but to their website, and v/v]

  • http://www.cre8d-design.com/blog/ Rachel C

    I agree with Aaron – RSS is nice but the great thing about the web is offering different formats for different people. The strength of blogging tools today is that they offer this flexibility. Yes, you might have to delve into code sometimes – but that’s where blog designers come in handy.

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  • http://www.brandonblatcher.com Brandon Blatcher

    If you’re trying to display multi blogs or categories of that blog on one page then newspaper design gives a good guide as to how to attractively organize this information.

    So I did a extremely rough layout of what that might look like, using the categories from my blog. It’s all info from the same blog, but each box is limited to a single category and it only shows one entry from that category. This presents a problem with entries tagged with multiple categories though, like in that second row. The same entry appears twice, because seperate boxes are tagged to display only “music” or only “media”. But that entry was tagged Music AND Media, so it appears twice. Also, the different lengths of the entries pushes the design (laid out via tables) outta whack. The full url format also throws off the width of columsn and thus the design. Pictures would pose another problem, and where the text goes around the picture. Even if the design was more professional looking, it would still be limited by this exact format. Someone would need to relayout this “page” on some annual basis, be it daily, weekly or whatever and that’s currently quite a task in web design.

    A lot of the common tools for doing page layout aren’t available on the web, stuff like multiple colums (Yeah, I know CSS 3 is supposed to handle that, but it’s still a couple of years off), being able to easily layout a age in an EXACT way or baring that a way for boxes/colums/rows etc to flex to the display device in a format that’s reads across all browswers.

    So, yeah, the single page list format is getting old, but IT’S EASY for now and someone upthread mentioned, it’s easier for people to adjust formatting quirks than it is for software to adjust us at the moment.

    Or perhaps not. Check out the mixed columns and rows category at cssdrive.com

  • http://jaxn.org/blog Jackson

    Have you checked out Squible (and asides). I am using it on my blog as well as the blog for my family retail store.

    I think it addresses this need nicely, but I am starting to think of some ways that it can be improved. The search engines are still finding me just fine too. I even think it has improved my bounce rate.

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  • http://www.graphpaper.com Christopher Fahey

    Go see http://www.watchblog.com. Three different political blogs (left, center, and right) on one home page.

    -Cf

  • http://www.nurvex.co.uk/ Website Design

    We are a website design company and we totally agree.

  • http://www.cre8d-design.com/blog/ Rachel C
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  • http://alanlnelson.typepad.com Alan Nelson

    Just a reminder, Jeff, that Command Post was a multiple-page/tab/section/thingy format from nearly the start. We did it by using multiple MT blogs within a single MT install and fed the headlines to the main page with a plugin. Before the final look took shape we even had tabs across the top.

    Love the WordPress look here, BTW. Much easier on the eyes than your old look.

  • http://www.bkdesign.ca Bruce Prochnau

    As a developer I have used WordPress, Movable Type, and Expression Engine for quite a few years. Expression Engine took over favorite spot from Movable Type about a year ago as being more configurable and easier to code.

    Blog templates? Yes, but whats needed is a change of mindset in looking at the templates as “blog” templates. If one learns the tags, even the minimum to make them work there is no design limit.

    One can tage any site on the planet and replace the content with the “blog” tags and make them editable. Just use whatever tags you want where you want.

    Of course I am speaking about what is basically the only three that are easily editable, WP, MT, and EE, and in that order. the rest of the nuke lookalikes not worth the time to bother trying.
    Graeat article, thanks :)

  • http://www.edu11701433096113.net.in/ Baylee

    Howdy Folks. I was wondering if anyone had any details on the Eastern re-union that is being held in Moncton in 2007. Cheers, Dan

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